(Bloomberg) — President Donald Trump said Wednesday that Russia isn’t currently targeting the U.S., diverging from a public statement his own intelligence director made two days earlier.
After a reporter asked during a cabinet meeting whether Russia was still targeting the U.S., Trump first tried to avoid answering by telling the assembled media “thank you,” usually a sign that he won’t take questions. But he then lowered his voice and responded, “No.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said Trump’s “no” meant that he didn’t want to take questions. She said the administration is taking measures on Russian meddling “to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”
“We believe the threat still exists,” she said.
Sanders’s explanation of Trump’s response was met with skepticism inside the White House briefing room and outside. “Do I believe that? No.” Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said of Sanders’ interpretation.
The exchange raised further questions about Trump’s true position on the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the U.S. intelligence community’s consensus that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election and is still trying to undermine American democratic institutions.
Trump made stronger remarks in an interview later Wednesday with CBS News anchor Jeff Glor, saying he holds Putin personally responsible for Russian interference in U.S. elections.
“Because he’s in charge of the country. Just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country,” Trump said in the CBS Evening News interview. Trump added that he told Putin, “we can’t have meddling.”
Trump provoked fierce bipartisan criticism after joining with Putin on Monday, at a summit in Helsinki, to question U.S. findings that the Kremlin meddled in the election and criticize the Department of Justice investigation that followed.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued a statement on Monday after the Helsinki news conference saying, “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
Trump said at the news conference in Helsinki that he gave equal weight to Coats’s assertions that Moscow interfered in the election and to Putin’s denials.
Trump attempted to walk back the remarks on Tuesday but instead further muddied his position. At a meeting with members of Congress, he read a statement saying that he accepted the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. But then he went off-script, immediately qualifying the statement by adding that it “could be other people also.”
Despite the public statement from Coats, Trump initially had been unwilling to back down from Helsinki remarks, according to a person familiar with deliberations. That changed after a meeting Tuesday between the president and Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in which they urged him to clarify his position, according to the person.
Even then, Trump made only a narrow retreat on Tuesday, saying he misspoke a single word in Helsinki.
Despite the clarification, Trump didn’t retreat from savaging Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election meddling as he stood alongside Putin. He also didn’t back down from comments blaming U.S. “foolishness and stupidity” for the deterioration of relations between Washington and Moscow, rather than Moscow’s election meddling, its military incursions into Ukraine and Syria, and its hostility toward U.S. NATO allies.
Sanders’s explanation of Wednesday’s mix-up also raised additional questions.
While Sanders said Trump was saying “no” to indicate that he didn’t want to answer questions, the president did offer a response just seconds after the answering in the negative.
“There’s been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia,” Trump said.
John Thune, the Senate’s third-ranking Republican leader, expressed resignation when asked whether he was satisfied with Trump’s walk-back of his Helsinki remarks.
“Well, I mean, I guess it’s probably the best that we’re going to be able to get, right?” Thune said.